Over the past nine months I have witnessed my wife self-publish a children’s picture book, a good friend get published by Penguin and my own debut novel comes out in May with Urbane Publications, a proud member of The Independent Publishing Guild. Each route has advantages and drawbacks. I attempt here to highlight the main ones, as I see them, to help you think about the trade-offs involved in each.
First, the traditional publishing route. You write a brilliant book, submit to an agent who’s interested in your genre, and get signed up. OK, that is not easy, not easy at all. Expect lots of rejections along the way. To get through the slush pile, it will need to sparkle, be on trend and be commercial. Once that’s been achieved, it’s not an automatic ticket to fame – the agent might want some editorial input. And then they have to find a publisher who wants to produce your book. I know writers who have got an agent but progressed no further.
Let’s suppose you’ve got that far and the rights have been bought – you’re definitely part of a hallowed minority and should feel justifiably proud. But the publisher might want some major alterations at this point, even to the title of your book and that can be pretty painful – like being told you don’t get to name your own child. Delays are not uncommon. For my friend, the brilliant Ali Land, whose debut Good Me Bad Me was released in January, it was virtually two years between being snapped up at the London book fair and finally seeing her novel hitting the shops.
But oh boy, when you get there… You can be sure that the publisher has invested a lot of time and money in your book. And they won’t skimp on the publicity campaign, high-profile reviews, marquee quotes on a beautiful cover. Your book will be stocked up and down the country. Doors will open for interviews, appearances at literary events etc.
At the other end of the spectrum is self-publishing. The most obvious advantage is that you get to choose if and when your book is published as long as you foot the bill. E-books are cheap, picture books very expensive. You’re responsible for editing and proof-reading. Designing the lay-out of the book and a striking cover is a skill in itself. It may be worth paying for some expert help if you can afford the increase in costs involved.
Once you’re book is out there, the really hard part begins. Most book shops are not interested in stocking self-published titles; it’s nothing personal, nor a judgment on your book, they’re simply too busy to look at the work of every self-published author who approaches them. A local connection – getting to know the people at the shops you want to target – can help and it might even earn you a premium spot in the store. My wife’s book sells very well at the places it is stocked, it’s just very hard to replicate that on a wide scale.
For these reasons, some self-published authors focus a lot of their effort on the e-book format, using social media to promote themselves and their work. It’s time consuming and the successful ones seem to rely on producing a large number of titles to ensure their fan-base grows and so they can afford to give away some of their work for free. You’ll need to be prolific and media savvy, but this route can work given enough time.
The final option is a kind of compromise between the first two. Independent publishers are willing to take more risks with the books they publish. My novel, Blue Gold, is a thriller set during a world war for water. Some agents suggested to me that Cli-Fi (speculative fiction about climate change) was not on trend at the moment. Were they being realistic about the current market or too conservative in their thinking?
Most indie publishers don’t require that you have an agent, which means that there is no third party taking a slice of the royalties. Typically, you’ll get more freedom in the editing process while still getting support on cover design and layout. Independent publishers may have their own fan base, helping to promote each book as it comes out. But you won’t get a big publicity campaign and titles don’t automatically get stocked in the big national chains. You’re going to have to get yourself out there, talk to people, try to get invited to festivals, offer to do talks and book signings.
It’s worth noting that both self-publishing and indie publishing can morph into the traditional route. The Martian, by Andy Weir, was originally self-published before being picked up by Del Rey when they noticed how well it was doing. Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was originally published by Galley Beggar Press of Norwich after several bigger houses thought it was too risky. But as it started to gather critical acclaim, Faber & Faber stepped in and offered to help maximise the book’s potential.
To all my fellow writers out there, good luck in your endeavours, whichever route you choose.
You can buy my wife’s book, Amelie and the Great Outdoors here.
This article originally appeared on 9th March, 2017, on the blog site A Lover of Books which can be found here.